Tre Cool: Three Times The Cool

tre cool

Photo: Robert Downs

In the heart of Orange County, California, you would never guess that a beige windowless building between a furniture wholesaler and a mattress retailer is the spot where Green Day have been practicing the last few weeks. They also squeeze in a few hours to surf the gently breaking waves off nearby Newport Beach, where for the last few years singer Billy Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tré Cool spent the summer months making music during the day, and bro-ing down at night in a house they jointly own by the beach.

Only the Triumph motorcycle, a vintage-looking club racer parked by the building entrance, offers any clue that a modern rockstar – or someone with great taste in bikes – is hanging out inside. “In the ’60s they were notoriously high-maintenance,” says Cool. He’s seated in the dressing room where he directs his gaze out the door via a wall-sized mirror as a makeup artist is spiking his hair. “The new ones aren’t like that, though.” There’s another motorcycle parked inside: a 1979 Kawasaki that the original owner never bothered to take out of the shipping crate. “That one’s Billy Joe’s.”

The Numbers Guy

Rewind to earlier in the afternoon, Cool was in a very different state of mind. A good two hours late for our interview, he bolts into the studio lounge and makes a beeline for the mini fridge. “Sorry, I didn’t get a chance to eat today.” As he wolfs down a bag of sweet-potato chips, the blood sugar gradually normalizes and he seems to recover the clown-prince-of-punk persona he’s honed so well over the years. “This is the trifecta right here,” he says pointing to the chips, a Diet Sunkist, and a bowl of figs.

The number three is something that Cool has had on the brain lately. Green Day’s new album triad, or multi-opus, or whatever we’re calling it, is comprised of three stand-alone works: ¡Uno! (out September 19), ¡Dos! (November 13) and ¡Tre! (January 15, 2013). Not three EPs, not a couple of mini albums, but a freakin’ timed-release trilogy with 37 new songs.

“Most bigger bands, older bands, they don’t have their material as tight when they go into the studio. And I think you hear the complacency,” he continues. “Where what I think we were striving to do is make a physical record where you hear three guys. And ’oh, let’s have Jason, too. The more the merrier!’” Cool is referring to Jason White, the band’s tour guitarist for the last decade. For the first time, White’s parts are on the record. “He’s like our Ronnie Wood – the eternal new guy,” he adds. “Billy was able to write polyrhythmic guitar parts with him, like an Angus and Malcolm kind of thing. So they played off each other making one sound.”

The writing process started out as jam sessions where people from the neighborhood, both down in the OC and up in the San Francisco Bay Area, showed up to watch and dance and just have a blast – almost like gigs but not quite. The band’s private studio, in a rough part of Oakland that’s slowly gentrifying, is across the street from a restaurant that serves mac & cheese and craft beer exclusively – the better to carb-up for their marathon sessions. “We had the luxury of sleeping in our own beds, going in, and recording, so that’s probably how we were able to make three records,” he says. “Rob [Cavallo, producer]’s in the studio, cell phone turned off. He was just focused on the music.”

As far as structuring the release into three separate units, it was not pop star hubris or some prog-like conceit. “It’s really just the way the songs were coming out as we were jamming,” he explains. “’This one feels like it would be on !Uno! This one feels more like ¡Tre! ’ We didn’t really edit what was coming creatively. We never stop a good thing. If the songs are coming, just let them come. Deal with the logistics of it later.

“Besides,” he adds, “¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, Mike sounded stupid.”

List-O-Mania

Shedding as diligently as someone who hasn’t sold millions of records, Cool is practicing even in his small home studio when he’s in Oakland between tours. Not at the Green Day practice space, mind you, but his actual house where he has a collection of some 200 snare drums.

He also deals with regular ol’ drummer headaches. “I’ve tried to soundproof it but that’s impossible when you’re Tré Cool,” he says. “So my neighbors politely wrote a note asking if I could possibly keep the noise down. [laughs] They were actually pretty nice about it. Like ’Your drumming is fantastic, but if you could keep it to before 10:00 that would be great.’ At first I thought it meant I could stop at ten in the morning.”

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One of Cool’s fondest memories is from a Green Day tour in Latin America where he attended a drum school for a few days in São Paolo. After the class, he and a bunch of students crammed into the back of a pickup truck and drove all around the city during Carnaval like a big mobile drum circle, hanging in the back drinking beers and playing samba beats.

He’s already been to Cuba twice for master classes and he’s shooting for a third trip when he gets the time. “This guy, José Elario, he teaches Cuban beats that would normally be timbalero and a conguero playing together, but he does the whole thing with his feet and his hands. It took a couple days just to get my head around that. So I went to try and learn that. It definitely rubbed off, but I want to go back there and get better.”

Suddenly, Cool springs to his feet and runs out of the room with no explanation. He reappears with what looks like a school report. Something about Official Underrated Drummers. At the top of the list: The Doors’ John Densmore.

Cool is pacing the room back and forth like a head litigator. “During the ’60s he was the only good American drummer,” he says, daring me to contradict him. “Think about it. Name another one of that era.”

Before waiting for an answer, he’s going down the list: “John JR Robinson – he played on Off The Wall.”

Er, the 8 million—selling album is not exactly obscure.

“But no one knows who he is,” Cool says of the Michael Jackson drummer. “He could walk through Guitar Center and no one would turn their head.”

Now he’s ripping through the names: John Wright (No Means No), Alex Gonzales (Mana – “They’re like a Mexican U2”), Carlton Barrett and Hugh Malcolm (Bob Marley), Irv Kottler (Frank Sinatra), Kenny Jones (Faces, The Who), David Barbarossa (Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow), Tim Davis (Steve Miller Band), Mark Laff (Generation X) ...

It’s an informed roll call of unpredictable yet believable choices. Until, that is, he arrives at Phil Rudd. How can the AC/DC drummer – one of the most commonly cited influences by drummers in this magazine – be underrated?

“Can you think of a beat better to play on ’Back In Black’? No! That’s why he’s underrated,” he roars. “Then there’s Alex Van Halen: Super under-f__king-rated because [in Van Halen] it’s all about Eddie. I think maybe he just got overshadowed by his genius brother. He just played with pure heart. He was like Keith Moon. He wasn’t afraid to just go out there and kick ass as hard as he could.

He rounds out the list with Zak Starkey (Oasis), “… but only in the studio with Oasis because he will not tour with them. [laughs] And he’s live with The Who,” he adds. “Incredible drummer, maybe a better drummer for The Who than Keith Moon was.”

This Time, It’s Personal

After grandiose records like American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, with their operatic aspirations and heavy lyrics, the band have returned to a more personal place. “That’s why there are so many songs about love and sex,” Cool says. If ¡Uno! is cotton candy, then ¡Dos! is the unhinged party record. Harder to classify, ¡Tre! is upbeat and pop in that Buzzcocksesque way but with a bittersweet tang. Opening track “Brutal Love” is pure doo-wop nostalgia with backing-vocal harmonies and horn section. The individual records have elements of the other, but retain their own vibe, a quality that sneaks up on you after the second or third listen. “… then ¡Tre! is the closest thing to an American Idiot,” Cool says. “There’s that song ’99 Revolutions,’ which is about the 99—to—1 percent ratio of wealth in the United States.”

More soulful than the galloping style common to punk drumming, Cool’s approach is somewhere between chaotic and dependable – he keeps the song grounded but you never can tell when he might shake the earth, like on “Makeout Party” from ¡Dos! – easily the best song in the trilogy. “Those drums are redonkulous,” he says. “It’s like trying to turn the beat upside down, turning it around, and having fun with it. Just real washy and loose and fast and driving at the same time. It’s nasty.”

The drums reflect ¡Dos!’s hedonistic spirit. “F__k Time” has a vamp-y boom-badda-boom thing on the toms evoking a strip club. But it’s the lopsided churn between ride, kick, and snare in “Makeout Party” that make a hot track smolder. ¡Dos! ends on a somber note with “Amy,” which Armstrong wrote the night he found out that Amy Winehouse had died from an overdose. “So that song is kind of like what can happen if you do party a little too hard.”

One of ¡Dos!’s best tunes, “Stop When The Red Lights Flash,” showcases a finely tuned sense of dynamics. “It starts off with a really long stairwell that crescendos and crescendos and crescendos, and it sounds like it’s going to break through your speaker.

I was hitting hard.”

For all its spontaneous flair, solid playing is the bread and butter of the Green Day drum sound. “I call that mongo drumming,” he says. “I think a good mongo drummer is the guy from Creedence [Doug “Cosmo” Clifford]. He slayed ’em, he just [mimics back beat] hit really hard and really solid. Nothing fancy, but it ruled.

“Or another term is circle drumming,” he continues. “Where you play the pattern and you play the pattern and play it and you play it – and then when you go to the chorus you hit the cymbal. You know, circle kind of drumming. The Cars, stuff like that. Rock and roll has a lot of different flavors.”

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The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

When that unknown someone from showbiz lore, the archetypal striver, predicts one day seeing their name in lights, we don’t usually picture punk rock drummers. But that all changed after American Idiot became a musical in fall 2009. The stage adaptation by Tony Award—winning director Michael Mayer features actors playing the roles of Cool, Armstrong, and Dirnt. But instead of being the stars of the show, they jam American Idiot tunes between the dialogue, just like any musical. The actors play characters from the original songs, such as the star-crossed lovers in the epic “Jesus Of Suburbia.”

“Somewhere in the world, whatever day of the week, American Idiot is going to be played somewhere in the world,” he gushes. “It’s like we’re always on tour but not – and I love that.” Just to be clear, the separately released soundtrack to the musical features Cool on drums. “For Broadway purposes, because of unions and all that, it has to be done in a single day so it was just easier for us to record it.”

Auspiciously, American Idiot’s première at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre featured a drummer/actor whose name was “Trey.” “And so I would listen to him, he would give me notes, and that was it,” he explains. “Then he sort of taught the next guy.”

The drum parts became altered as the musical moved to Broadway where it’s currently running. They’ll change again in London, and then once again most likely as it makes its way across the globe, subtly contracting and expanding, like the whispered message in that elementary school game. But Cool takes the long view. “Once I let go of ’It has to be exactly like this’ I learned to just enjoy watching it blossom,” he says. “The records were always the reference. [The stage drummer] listened to the American Idiot record and then he listened to the American Idiot: The Musical record. Any good Broadway drummer with a rock background will be able to do it.”

After working with Butch Vig for Green Day’s last album, 21st Century Breakdown, a process that Cool guiltily admits benefitted the band a lot more than Vig, they have gone back to longtime producer Rob Cavallo. At this point you would think Green Day would not want anybody coming between them and their vision, but as Cool says, the band needed some outside ears. “You might be underestimating what it takes to record a band like Green Day,” he says. “It takes a lot of work. Getting things like guitar and vocals and drums right. That stuff takes time. Musicians don’t want to sit there and do all that and listen for hours on end like we do.”

Before we can ask, there is one word Cool uses to describe the drums throughout the three albums: “Washy,” he says. “It’s power. It’s physical, you know? So we started with that more washy ride setup. And I use a drum-brella, which we built. It’s a little drum thing that goes over …” he wraps his arms like an enclosure. “It just keeps the cymbals from washing through the rim. That way you get a cleaner rim sound. We stole [the idea] from Ocean Way. So there’s little tricks like that.”

If there is one rhythmic thread running through ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tre!, it’s the way the drumming becomes increasingly warm, grainy, and rich.

“Because we had so much material, I changed up the drum style. So when I went to ¡Dos!, I went [from a 22" bass drum] to a Gretsch 24" kick. For the floor toms, 16" x 14" and 16" x16," and used that for half of it and then [for the second floor] I went to 16" x 18". So as the records progress, it gets bigger and bigger, just opens up.”

When this much effort goes into achieving drum sound, the whole idea of sound replacement on a Green Day record is, well, preposterous. “People sample me because I’m the guy who makes the rad acoustic drum sounds,” he says. Without naming names he maintains that a select group of mixers end up with choice samples, and predicts that the new music’s bass drum will soon be heard everywhere. “I know it’s an inside thing. All these guys in the industry trade these files and stuff.”

Cool being cool, he’s okay with that. Matter of fact he encourages it, and not just his own beats but whole Green Day songs. “I like when I hear other people put their spin and creativity on a song that [already] exists. The DJ world is exploding all over the place, you know? Everyone and their mom dee-jays now. Literally, people’s moms dee-jay. Some of them are actually just hipster dorks, but there’s a real art form there. So I just hope that a lot of the really good ones will take some of what we’ve got on this new record and run with it, especially that song “Kill The DJ,” which is just screaming for [a remix],” he says, referring to the tune’s disco beat. “We’ll give them the stems, whatever they want. [chuckles] C’mon, Ludacris – call us up!

Just for the record, cool nailed the disco beat on “Kill The DJ” in the first take. “It’s a Clem Burke kind of thing,” he says. “Mike and I are always doing funky s__t like that at rehearsals.” Which reminds him of a glaring omission on the underrated drummers list. “Actually, [Clem Burke] shouldn’t be on there,” he says after consideration. “He still blows people’s minds every night.”

As for whether “Kill The DJ” is tongue-in-cheek or a DIY punk assault on preprogrammed beats, Cool pleads the fifth. “You’ll have to ask Billy Joe.”

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tre cool

Drums Gretsch USA Custom (Champagne Sparkle)
1. 22" x 16" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 5.5"
3. 13" x 9" Tom
4. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
5. 18" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A. 14" K Hi-Hat (top)/14" Z Custom Hi-Hat (bottom)
B. 19" K Dark Crash
C. 19" A Medium Crash
D. 22" A Deep Ride
E. 21" A Sweet Ride
F. 19" K Hybrid Trash Smash

Tré Cool also uses Gibraltar hardware, Zildjian signature sticks, and Remo heads (Emperor X, snare; Coated Emperor, toms; and Clear PowerStroke 3, bass drum).

Rebel Yells

One of the most surprising names on the underrated list was Irv Cottler, the Sinatra drummer. During the photo shoot, the velvety croon of Ol’ Blue Eyes and Cottler’s swinging rhythms issue forth from a CD player next to the drum set. A source of inspiration, no doubt. “Hear how good his drums sound?” he says, hooking a thumb at the boom box.

It’s early evening when the photo shoot starts but Cool’s all hopped up from an iced coffee, slamming around the kit, doing triplet fills, a boogaloo-type beat, some ride bell grooving, much of it very unlike what he does on Green Day records. Suited up in a ska-rific ’60s acetate leisure shirt and black-and-white hound’s tooth pants – the pattern echoes his signature stick bag and practice pad – the drummer has morphed from earnest student back to the prankster of punk-rock lore, mugging shamelessly for the camera like a kid at a birthday party, giving a mock service announcement about hearing protection, and stomping on a Model-T horn and bike-bell mounted on the kit like a clown car in a parade.

While a publicist is on the phone, Cool tauntingly screams at him while bashing on the cymbals and toms to drown out the call. “Gimme a Tré Cool practice pad,” he barks. He looks up and grins as he whips out a series of tattoos on the snare, sharp as they were in high school drum corps.

He changes outfits again for another round of photos on a different Gretsch kit, one of three he’ll take on tour in the States, Europe, and Asia, respectively. Someone is quizzing him about surfing and what type of “stick” he prefers. (longboard, dude).

The spoils of success? More like the tools for it. Whether he, Armstrong, and Dirnt are riding the waves off Newport Beach or cruising motorcycles, it’s all part of the prolonged, gloriously messy process that is Green Day. Before the drummer had arrived today, a studio technician was explaining how the three guys are the opposite of bands at a comparable level, or even a more modest level: “They actually go out of there way to spend time together,” he recalled. “Billy Joe and Mike knew each other since, what, fifth grade or something?”

Cool seconds the idea: “We’re there putting the hours in. We spend, like, five hours a day, five days a week doing Green Day song stuff ... or just being Green Day. Writing songs, rehearsing ’em, talking about what we can do, all that stuff. There’s only one way to do it, man. You just can’t leave it to someone else or s__t gets messed up.”

Cool returns to the theme of success and the complacency it breeds. “Priorities get screwed up – or not screwed up,” he says after a hesitation. “They just change, you know? For us, we’re musicians, it’s what we want to die doing. We’ve been on this creative path for a long time, it’s taken flight, and now, it’s in the stratosphere. And we’re enjoying the hell out of it. So we’re not going to do anything to sink it.”